5 Things to Do If IEP Meetings Make You Anxious
5 steps to feel calmer as you advocate for your kid
I get anxious every year. When my son’s annual Individual Education Plan meeting is coming up, my stomach starts churning and my heart flutters. It has been nearly a decade. While it has gotten a little easier, I still get nervous. It feels like my son’s future is hanging in the balance every year. Whether it is true or not, that is how it feels.
Everyone else in the room will be a professional educator, and I am the only one there who literally has to live with the outcome of the decisions made during the meeting. Even when I know his team cares about my son, it can be a heavy, lonely experience.
What have I learned to do about it? I prepare, communicate, listen, advocate and review. These five steps ease my anxiety as I go through the process. It may not be fair that parents of kids with disabilities have to do a lot of extra work to ensure our kids have their needs met, but that is the way it is. We might as well have a plan.
Yes, you can bring someone with you. That strategy hasn’t helped me feel calmer. I need to focus, and end up getting distracted by yet another personality in the room. That said, you may benefit from moral support or a professional advocate. Make sure they will follow your lead.
I hope these steps help you feel calm and supported as you advocate for your child.
When the teacher calls to schedule the meeting, I make an effort to be available at the proposed time since there are usually so many schedules they have to coordinate. I put it in my calendar and then I get to work.
First, I reread the previous IEP. I make notes on what goals I think he has achieved and hasn’t. I think about my biggest concerns in the moment, and anticipate any going forward. I prepare something for the “parent concerns” section of each PLOP area: academic, social and physical. (PLOP: present levels of performance.) I think about his current interests, strengths and challenges. These are rough notes that will change during the next step.
Most of the communication happens leading up to the meeting, as soon as I know the date. I like to know ahead of time what will be proposed for the IEP, so I ask the teacher and therapists informally for a heads up on what they are observing, what they are planning as far as goals, and any changes in services they are recommending. I ask them to reply by a date which gives me reasonable time to review the information — at least a few days. This has helped me to hold onto services that I felt my son still needed, and to have more nuanced conversations about why they are proposing the changes ahead of the meeting. They can’t spring changes on me at the meeting if I ask ahead of time. If they do, I think that is a good reason to refuse.
If there’s anything upsetting or emotional going on, I try to get that out in the open and talk about it before the meeting. Usually, there are still a few tears during the meeting, but I try to keep the drama to a minimum.
I seek out common ground. I tell the team about the “birthday present” test I learned from Paula Kluth: After reading a child’s IEP, someone should have an idea of a good birthday gift for them. Although the Special Education system is a deficit-based model, I want the reader to know my kid as a whole human who has strengths and passions as well as challenges.
I arrive at the meeting early, smiling, dressed neatly, well-fed and rested (if possible), with some sort of non-messy snack to share. I bring out my lists, but also a notebook and pen. I listen and take notes and wait my turn to express my concerns. I do my breathing. I have learned not to be too pedantic. One year I tried to make it my mission for goals to have meaningful criteria. That went nowhere and I gave up. I asked every year for data and graphs showing his progress… crickets. But they are really good therapists and teachers, and that matters a lot more to me than paper. I trust his team. I’ve learned so much from them. The notes I take are often golden nuggets of wisdom.
A tip I learned from a workshop at NYU’s Child Study Center: Bring an organized binder with an adorable photo of your child on the cover. Leave it facing up so everyone remembers who this is for.
In middle and high school, you could bring the actual child (rather than a photo) if you feel they are mature enough. Not only will their presence soften the formality of the meeting, but they will learn to self-advocate. If your kid is sitting there, the adults are more likely to play nice. I don’t recommend bringing young children to an IEP meeting if you can possibly help it. Either they are totally distracting, or they are too well-behaved. This happened at our second Early Intervention meeting when my son was under 2. I didn’t have childcare and had to bring him. I made sure he was well-rested and fed. He rose to the occasion, for once, playing nicely with blocks during the meeting. The administrator used this against us to deny services.
That was the end of that. I always found child care, until this year. My son is in fifth grade now. He attended his IEP meeting this year, via Zoom. I coached him ahead of time not to say “I don’t need that!” and to walk away if he couldn’t listen. He perched on the back of my chair like a cat.
Remember that it can get ugly, and it is OK if it does, but it isn’t always going to be ugly. Don’t expect it unless you have a good reason.
If anything said seems off to me, I challenge it. I’ve gotten better at saying no without getting emotional. I pick my battles carefully. I’ve rarely had an antagonistic relationship with any educator, although I’m not afraid to go for it. I am confident in my position as a member of the team, and the expert when it comes to my son. We parents are absolutely expected to advocate for our kids, and the current system only works when we do.
The educators know you are just doing your job, and they would do the same for their own kids. I’ve been told as much. If I disagree about reducing a service, I bring a list of reasons and a possible compromise. And cookies.
I think this is the most important step. At the end of the meeting, I request that nothing is finalized until I have had a chance to review a copy of the IEP. This can cause some friction if they are up against a deadline, but I need to do it. The next year, they won’t leave the meeting so late. I’ve found errors, and when I have skipped this step and trusted that all would be well… Haha… One summer he rode to school on a full-sized bus, and one September there was no bus at all.
Read the IEP. Make sure you understand it. Ask questions if you don’t.
More important even than reviewing the IEP is establishing a means of communication with team members early on in each new year. Check in periodically, for example, once a quarter — even just to say hello. That way, you know each other before the meeting, and have a communication channel open.
No matter how much his team cares about my son, it can be stressful to advocate for him during an IEP meeting. When I have prepared, communicated, listened, advocated and reviewed, I feel more at ease.
I hope these 5 steps give you a framework for getting through this year’s IEP meeting with confidence. Remember, Special Education teachers and therapists generally care about our kids and want them to succeed. Thank them. Bring them snacks. And check that IEP twice!
This story originally appeared on Mindfully Parenting Atypical Kids.
Photo by Nick Morrison on Unsplash